clock menu more-arrow no yes

I asked Snowden if he deals with Russian officials. His answer was weird but revealing.

Edward Snowden in Moscow in December 2013
Edward Snowden in Moscow in December 2013
Barton Gellman/Washington Post via Getty

One question that has captivated journalists ever since Edward Snowden arrived in Moscow, where after several weeks trapped in an airport he was granted Russian asylum, is the extent and nature of his relationship with the Russian government.

The point of the question is not to impugn Snowden, who appealed personally to Vladimir Putin for asylum and is reportedly under the protection of Russian state security. Snowden is a high-profile American exile in Russia at a time of extraordinary US-Russia tension, and of political turmoil in Moscow. His interactions with Russian officials would be a narrow but potentially fascinating window into Russia today. But he's never really spoken about it; neither have Russian officials, other than a few comments from Putin in passing.

So, when I saw that Snowden was doing a question-and-answer session with Reddit users on Monday, pegged to Snowden documentary Citizenfour winning an Oscar, I decided to try to ask him directly. Here's my question:

Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov has described your daily life as circumscribed by Russian state security services, which he said control the circumstances of your life there. Is this accurate? What are your interactions with Russian state security like? With Russian government representatives generally?

To my surprise and delight, Snowden replied. To my disappointment, he did not actually answer my question, but rather seemed to be answering a question I had not asked: Are you a Russian spy?

Good question, thanks for asking.

The answer is "of course not." You'll notice in all of these articles, the assertions ultimately come down to speculation and suspicion. None of them claim to have any actual proof, they're just so damned sure I'm a russian spy that it must be true.

And I get that. I really do. I mean come on - I used to teach "cyber counterintelligence" (their term) at DIA.

But when you look at in aggregate, what sense does that make? If I were a russian spy, why go to Hong Kong? It's would have been an unacceptable risk. And further - why give any information to journalists at all, for that matter, much less so much and of such importance? Any intelligence value it would have to the russians would be immediately compromised.

If I were a spy for the russians, why the hell was I trapped in any airport for a month? I would have gotten a parade and a medal instead.

The reality is I spent so long in that damn airport because I wouldn't play ball and nobody knew what to do with me. I refused to cooperate with Russian intelligence in any way (see my testimony to EU Parliament on this one if you're interested), and that hasn't changed.

At this point, I think the reason I get away with it is because of my public profile. What can they really do to me? If I show up with broken fingers, everybody will know what happened.

Unfortunately, the mystery around Snowden's interactions with Russian officials, or lack thereof, will continue. He does not describe what those interactions have been like, who with, or the extent to which they have occurred, if at all.

To be clear, this is not to accuse Snowden of dodging the question deliberately. Had he wanted to ignore it, he could have simply skipped over it and answered one of the dozens of unanswered Reddit user questions instead. Rather, it seems most likely that he is so used to hearing some variation of the accusation "You must be a Russian spy" that perhaps he read it into my question, and reacted to that.

In the past, the closest that Snowden has come to answering this question was when he claimed in an interview with NBC News, "I have no relationship with the Russian government at all."

This seemed implausible, and still does. Snowden appealed for asylum in a letter to Putin, who had publicly stated the terms by which Russia would accept him. Snowden, in his first weeks in Moscow, was inseparable from a Russian lawyer, Anatoly Kucherena, who is known for his ties to the Kremlin and to state security services.

He has since largely disappeared into an apartment — provided by whom? — in an undisclosed location. And according to what scant reports exist of his life, he is "surrounded" by members of Russian state security, in the word of Russian journalist Andrei Soldatov, who described those services as controlling the circumstances of his life in Russia. In April 2014, he appeared on Russian state TV to ask Putin a softball question about whether Russia spies on its citizens. (Putin said it does not.)

To be clear, none of this means that Snowden must therefore be a KGB operative working at the personal behest of Russian President Vladimir Putin, nor does it necessarily make him any sort of traitor, as some critics have alleged. And it certainly does not in itself invalidate the significance of the NSA materials he released. But the wealth of evidence indicates that he must at least regularly interact with the Russian government and security services. His continued refusal to discuss those interactions is understandable — he relies on the continued support of the Russian government, even if that support is only tacit, to stay out of American prison — but telling in itself.